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$3,750 Posthumous Settlement in California Prisoner’s Medical Suit

State officials have settled a federal lawsuit against California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation medical staff that alleged lengthy delays in the diagnosis and treatment of a prisoner’s stomach cancer.

Gerardo Richardo Gallegos was a California state prisoner who did not speak or read English. Beginning in 1996, he began to experience episodic weight loss, stomach upset and abdominal pain while eating. Using X-rays, prison physicians diagnosed an obstructing sternotic lesion. Following endoscopic examination and a biopsy, Gallegos was treated for “multiple deep ulcerations” and a prison doctor recommended a CT scan to rule out stomach cancer should the symptoms return.

The treatment that Gallegos received for ulcers – antacids and antibiotics – gave him a brief period of relief. Then the symptoms returned.

In 1997, an upper GI barium X-ray series was performed and no evidence of abnormal growth was discovered. The doctor’s prior recommendation for a CT scan was ignored.

By 1998 Gallegos began to experience shortness of breath along with his other symptoms. This led prison physicians to look for heart and lung problems. Although they noted that abnormal gastrointestinal growths should be ruled out, they did nothing to actually determine whether Gallegos had stomach cancer. Instead they gave him antacids, Prilosec, Tegamet and various antibiotics. Gallegos never received a CT scan or pain medication despite having experienced severe pain for over two years.

A prison doctor recommended an appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist in July 1998, but Gallegos didn’t see the specialist until October 1999. Finally, in December 1999, Gallegos was transferred to a hospital where an endoscopic examination revealed an “appearance highly suspicious of cancer of the stomach.” Ten days later he received emergency radical surgery to remove his stomach due to advanced cancer.

Gallegos’ post-surgical recovery was hindered when he was transferred from the hospital to the wrong prison without any medical records. A week later he was finally sent to the correct facility and began to receive medical treatment in the form of multiple CT scans, liquid nutritional supplements, dietary supplements for iron-deficient blood, close monitoring of his weight, vitamins, pain medication and multiple stool sample analyses.

Gallegos filed a pro se civil rights action in U.S. District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in 2001, alleging that prison medical employees, including physicians John Parsons, Charles Pickett, Sunil Walia and James S. Burrell, were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. A decade later, Gallegos’ widow, Dora Alvarez Gallegos, settled with the defendants for $3,750. No information was available on the circumstances of Gallegos’ death, which occurred during the course of the litigation. Following the settlement in February 2011, the case was dismissed.

A civil rights complaint such as this one, in which prison medical personnel provided some medical services – albeit not the services needed to diagnose the actual problem – is very hard to win due to the difficulty of proving deliberate indifference when some medical care is supplied. Such cases are often better brought in state court raising claims of medical negligence and/or medical malpractice. See: Gallegos v. Parsons, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:01-cv-01874-DMS-JMA.

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Related legal case

Gallegos v. Parsons